South Carolina BAR Journal
SC Lawyer, March 2011, #2.
Legislature Makes Permanency a Priority for Children in Foster Care Overview of Senate Bill 1172
South Carolina LawyerMarch 2011Legislature Makes Permanency a Priority for Children in Foster Care Overview of Senate Bill 1172By Michelle DhunjishahMost attorneys who have been involved in Department of Social Services (DSS) abuse and neglect cases-by representing the parents, the Department of Social Services, the guardian ad litem or the foster parents-know that state law places strict time frames in which hearings related to children in foster care must take place. The hearing on the merits of the removal must take place within 35 days of the child's entry into foster care (unless there are exceptional circumstances), S.C. Code Ann. § 63-7-710 (E); a permanency planning hearing must take place within the first 12 months of the child's entry into foster care; and if the child stays in the custody of the state, then hearings must take place every year thereafter. See S.C. Code Ann. § 63-7-1700 (A) and (I) (5).
Yet, despite these specific time frames, children still linger in foster care. For children with foster care cases open on December 31, 2009, the average length of time they had spent in foster care was 2.6 years. Data obtained from S.C. Department of Social Services Division of Accountability and Planning. More than 400 children left foster care in 2009 by simply turning 18 or "aging out," not because they returned to their birth family or were adopted by another family. Data obtained from S.C. Department of Social Services Division of Accountability and Planning. And while the average time from entry into foster care until adoption has been declining since 2006, and there was a record number of DSS adoptions in the last fiscal year, children with a plan of adoption still wait an average of 39.6 months for adoption. See S.C. Department of Social Services Child Welfare Reports and Data (2009-2010), https://dss.sc.gov/content/library/statistics/cw/reports.aspx?ID=106. With the economic reality of declining state resources and the increased demand for services, the length of time children spend in foster care has the potential to increase dramatically.
Senate Bill 1172: Time is of the essence
These challenging times demand that the system-including not only DSS, but also the Guardian ad Litem Program, Richland County CASA, the Foster Care Review Board, private practitioners and the family court-work smarter and better for our children who are in the legal custody of the state through no fault of their own. That is what the legislature had in mind when it passed Senate Bill 1172, which became law on May 12, 2010, when Gov. Sanford signed the bill. With the new law, reunification with the birth family is still the first choice when it does not put the child at an unreasonable risk of harm and when it can be accomplished within a reasonable time. Children who can be reunited with their families should be reunited as expeditiously as possible. However, a birth parent's constitutional protections have limits. The South Carolina legislature has determined that time is of the...